Rethinking library advocacy

With the cuts facing libraries around the country, how to improve our advocacy methods has been a paramount topic lately.   On Monday, I’m cohosting a webinar in the TL Virtual Cafe featuring Buffy Hamilton and Chris Harris on the crisis in staffing cuts many libraries around the country are facing and some proactive measures to take.

spokanemomstal2010At the Texas Library Conference this week, I was privileged to hear the Spokane Moms,(Lisa Layera Brunkan and Susan Lloyd McBurney), two of a dynamic group of moms who fought in Washington State to preserve school libraries  challenging our notions of how to do library advocacy.

While they were very focused on the power of bringing different stakeholders into a statewide advocacy movement, they also shared ideas that any librarian in any district could use to manifest the support they already have more clearly.

In the midst of their advocacy journey, they were told by a key legislator, “Don’t bring the librarians” to the statehouse.  A stunning comment, but a wakeup call for our current advocacy methodology.    Our message and methods have to change to be effective.

First off, we have to have a clear message and one that appeals to those whom we are trying to persuade.  They pointed out that slogans like “libraries matter” or “schools work” are too vague.

The message has to be about students and it has to speak to what lawmakers are concerned about.  And the Spokane moms feel that stakeholders at the state level are interested in global competitiveness and workforce readiness and college preparedness.  That isn’t all that libraries prepare students for, but it’s one important thing we prepare students for, so why not highlight it?   As they said, one of our messages should be:  Do you want a Texas child picked last for college because they aren’t prepared educationally?

We’ve attempted to use data from many studies on the positive benefits to students from library programs to impact our state legislators, but they suggested these aren’t really working.  This data is important at the local level for our administrators but other strategies are more effective at the state level.

The Spokane moms found that a key part of this message is engaging your major stakeholders: parents, students, administrators, teachers and legislators.  (I would add businesses as well), and shared strategies for drawing on the advocacy of these groups.

This is a brilliant recommendation, whether you are fighting an advocacy “battle” or not.  Why not have quotes from business people in your district on your library webpage praising the value of info literate employees?  Or quotes from satisfied parents?   Or quotes from local professors about the importance of library programs like yours for their students?   And if you’ve built relationships with these stakeholders, when trouble hits, not only do you have support, but you have relationships with people who know what you do from experience with your program.

They also recommended forming a coalition.  Seek groups that have vested interests in libraries and invite them into a coalition or support team.   Technology companies, organizations at universities nearby that would be supportive(like the American Association of University Women or the university’s Alumni organization, for example), and  places that hire your graduates.   (And by the way, they pointed out a coalition can be just one or two groups!)
Again, it’s about finding stakeholders who ultimately benefit from the skills students learn in our libraries and classrooms through our efforts.    And if you don’t know anyone, they recommend  employing ‘wdyk’–figuring out “Who do you know who knows somebody?”  (Social networking tools make this much easier!)

Your message  should be focused on kids all the time, not librarians or their jobs.  That message should resonate in your physical space, on your website, in your promotional materials–in everything you do.    And the message also needs to convey what is key about a 21st century library program for students.

As Lisa said, a library IS a 21st century classroom, a place where students learn ‘multidimensional literacy’.    We can’t use the classic message of literary enjoyment alone, because what students learn in libraries is so much more than that.  The library is a laboratory in the school that can feed thinking and creativity, the “Google” petri dish of the school.

And we have to make it clear that libraries aren’t an enhancement or a luxury.  They are a solution.   Libraries are a solution, as the Spokane moms point out, for the digital gaps and participation gaps and inequities in our students’ lives.    I think they are also a solution to the problems of information literacy, ethical uses of information, college readiness, and more.  It’d be a good conversation for librarians to be having within their districts and with their constituents about the problems libraries provide solutions for.

In a statewide advocacy campaign, it’s also important to identify what the key concern are of voters in different areas of the state.  (or if it’s a countywide campaign, areas of the county, etc.) What is important to voters in cities might not be the same as in the rural areas, in terms of library services.  And if you are running any sort of statewide advocacy, you have to have a clear goal.

The most powerful part of the Spokane moms message was the importance for us to cultivate relationships outside of our school.   The more our stakeholders know what we really do, the more support we will have on a daily basis, and if we face financial difficulties in the future.

But also, our programs have to walk the walk.  We have to be sure we are challenging ourselves to provide the best, most current practices in our field.  We have to be sure we are giving students tools that will prepare them for future ventures.   We have to be sure, as Lisa said, that our libraries represent the “new terrain.”

7 thoughts on “Rethinking library advocacy

  1. I was in the same session and found it very interesting as well. I subscribe to your blog and find your posts to be very insightful and useful. I actually keep some of them filed for future use (I know that’s not very 2.0 of me!). I have been able to quote you several times. I often use your posts to provoke discussion at library meetings on topics that I think we need to address. I wish we had met, so that I could thank you in person.

  2. I had breakfast with Lisa and the Spokane Moms the morning of their presentation; they are a dynamic duo. I’ve written to many school boards to convince them not to proceed with library cuts, in several instances successfully. There are four concrete, unassailable points I emphasize: (i) that most students prefer to get information from search engines, even when not the best place to find it, and yet they are very poor at finding or evaluating information online; left unchecked, they will never learn of other places to find information, and will never learn how to use search engines effectively; (ii) the “old school” ways of finding and communicating information no longer cut it; I’ve mastered those, and yet now spend each day re-learning how to learn and communicate effectively in this new world; every honest professional would acknowledge this point; (iii) most classroom teachers do not have the time to keep up with the pace at which new sources of information and communication are being created, and need the help of a media specialist; and (iv) with wildly varying access to qualified librarians in schools, a “new divide” is developing, with students who have access to librarians, to quote University College of London, “taking the prize of better grades,” while those who don’t have access to school librarians showing up at college beyond hope, having “already developed an ingrained coping behaviour: they have learned to ‘get by’ with Google.”

  3. Vicki, Thanks 🙂 I saw you across the room, but sorry we didn’t actually meet!

    Mark, I particularly like your last point. It’s not only that we disadvantage students when librarians are eliminated, it’s that we also disadvantage them in comparison to other students who do have librarians. This only furthers the digital divide and economic divide for students.

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Thanks for this post. While I am a public librarian I find that much of what you speak about is applicable to public libraries. The most striking points you make are that we need to be relevant to lawmakers and constituants concerns ie we need to advocate the services that lawmakers care about. I have never thought of libraries as a luxury but I am not sure I ever thought of them as a “solution”. This is very thought provoking and obviously goes hand in hand with their point of focusing on lawmakers concerns. Libraries can provide solutions to problems lawmakers and others grapple with. I have commented on this post on my blog as well and am hoping to continue the dialogue. Thanks again. Amy Kraemer, ruralibrarian in NH

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